Your Brain and Immunity: The Fascinating Connection You Need to Nurture
People often ask me, “What kind of medicine do you practice?” And when I say Functional Medicine, some people don’t really understand. So, I say I’m a psycho-neuro-immuno-endo-gut-ologist, which is because all the systems in the body are interrelated.
Sometimes when you specialize, whether you are an immunologist or an endocrinologist or a cardiologist, you end up with a narrow focus, even if you’re practicing from an integrative approach. Having a broader scope and looking at the many bidirectional connections within the body helps me to better treat my patients and get to the root cause of their problems; the immune system always plays an important part in many health conditions.
The Missing Link
The immune system is not located in any one specific place in the body, rather, it’s everywhere. It is a distributed biologic system.
Previously, the brain was thought to be separate from the immune system. Now, evidence shows that the brain has a lymphatic system, called the glymphatic system and is connected to the glial cells, which are actually an extremely important part of the brain.
Glial cells are the glue that holds the whole brain together. Most physicians probably forgot about glial cells, because when they go to medical school they’re only taught about the neurons and neural synapses. But only 10% of the brain is actually made up of neurons; most of the brain is composed of glial cells. Microglial cells are one subset of glial cells, which are actually derived from the immune system during embryological development and play
When people have inflammation in the body, either in the gut or from some type of systemic virus—Epstein-Barr virus, HIV, etc.—it can activate the microglial cells, and then they, in turn, cause inflammation in the brain. Over time, this is like setting the brain on fire. When brain inflammation continues over time this can cause neurodegenerative conditions that manifest clinically as mood issues, cognitive issues, and more.
Since the glymphatic system is basically the garbage truck of the brain, it helps to clear the inflammatory metabolites out of the brain and bring fresh nutrients in. Supporting this system provides us with new modalities for taking better care of both the brain and the immune system all at once.
Be Your Own Brain Advocate
One of the most interesting things about the glymphatic system is that it’s activated during sleep. People are getting less and less sleep, and even when they are getting sleep, it’s not good, deep, restful sleep. And during the real deep delta wave sleep is when the brain does a lot of its detoxifying and gets rid of the metabolic waste products of metabolism and immune activity. When sleep is disrupted the glymphatic system can’t work properly and protein aggregation or buildup can happen which leads to problems. Good deep sleep helps the brain takes out the trash.
One of the best ways to support a healthy brain and high-functioning immune system is to make sleep a priority. Dial in your bedtime routine by avoiding screens 1 to 2 hours before bed, dimming the lights, using blue blocking lenses after sunset, and setting up a sleep/wake schedule to support your natural circadian rhythm.
In addition to high-quality sleep, sauna therapy is also very beneficial. Sauna therapy allows the body to vasodilate; during this process, you open up the connection between the arteries, the veins, and the lymphatic system. Interestingly, one study that looked at patients who do regular sauna therapy found that they had a significantly decreased incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia. I tend to think that there’s something powerful going on when we expose our bodies to heat, that allows them to better detoxify, and many of my patients say they feel better when using saunas regularly.
When I am done working out at the gym, I like to hop in the steam room for 15 to 20 minutes to work up a good sweat. While steam rooms and infrared saunas are two different approaches to raising body temperature, they both have many benefits. In general, getting your body temperature up is good for both the immune system and detoxification processes. If you don’t currently belong to a gym with a steam room or sauna check out your local spa. Some Functional Medicine doctor’s offices even offer infrared sauna to support detoxification.
Exercise is another great way to boost the immune system, enhance brain function, and support detoxification all at once. No matter what kind of movement you prefer, try to incorporate it into your daily routine.
A Whole-Body Approach
I find it so exciting to see that science is always evolving. Ten years ago we didn’t know the brain had its own system for detoxification, now we can leverage that information to support the brain’s immune system and detoxification system for optimal health.
Of course, good sleep hygiene, sweating, and exercise are only some of the many ways we can take care of our bodies. Eating a nutrient-dense diet of real-foods, spending time with people we love, getting outdoors, and using certain herbs and supplements are additional ways we can strengthen the brain-immune connection while benefiting the rest of the body at the same time.
When we look at the body with a systems-based approach and use accessible tools like these, we can find our way to better, long-lasting health in both our mind and body.